Our contributing art editor, Riki Moss, recently had this exchange with Abigail Child, Issue #15’s featured artist. Here’s what she had to say about her relationship to the many media she works in, her particular interest in collage and film, and the themes in her work.
Abigail, you work in collage, still photography, installations and film: you are a poet, a critical essayist, you write books, you teach, lecture and attend residencies. Did anyone ever tell you to focus on one thing? That life is too short for multiple careers? Not to stretch yourself thin?
Definitely. My mother, first off, has said I am doing too much! And sometimes I feel the pressure myself.
However writing books is part of being a poet and a critical essayist, and being a critic is part of being a filmmaker and thinker. The collages seem to me related to some of my film work almost directly (the encyclopedic films for example PREFACES, MERCY, SURFACE NOISE). I know when I am doing the collages, I am thinking they are giving me structural experience, they are models for thinking and joining images.
I think of the installations as montage in space. As a child I preferred sculpture to painting, because painting seemed limited to walls (from the point of view of my suburban childhood) and sculpture seemed to be more “in life.” I think that instinct for space is part of what has led me to consider installation seriously. To make ultimately a film in the round, a film that moves across the room. The technology is not there yet. Virtual units seem simplistic and obvious, often, with a lack of thinking, okay here we are in a tropical forest and I want to smell it, walk through it, not stay chained to the eyepiece, hooked to a wire in a gallery. Moving a projector can be fun but is often loosely improvisatory, less meaning-full than I am seeking. So, the idea of moving beyond the screen, creating a horizontal montage, is an inviting challenge.
In short my activities at best seem related, feeding each other, layered through ideas rather than scattered.
Until seeing your collages, I used to think of the medium as limited, without energy, even stagnant. But your collages are explosions and/or implosions, they vibrate with energy, hidden meanings and intention, they are visual rents in the status quo. Why does this medium resonate with you? Why not paint?
Thank you for the nice compliments on the collages. Visual rents in the status quo. Yes! They are comments on consumer culture even as they are dynamic visually. They pick up on the objects in the world, or rather, the excess of objects to create a new space of our often chaotic, challenging crazy-paced culture.
The use of paper and cut outs is second nature to me. As a child, I cut and pasted, what else? The basic relation to visual and graphics, to frames and parts. I remember we had a red velvet couch in the living room, maroon actually, and I would sit under the cushion as a small child because it was cozy and felt good. I had a scissors in my hand and I had to restrain myself not to cut into the velvet—it was a strong and insistent urge. I remember distinctly at 7 or 8 feeling the need to resist that urge to cut. As an adult I don’t need to resist anymore!
Regarding why not paint?….I often wish I could. I painted a bit in high school. My teachers liked the work at the time, took me under his and her wing but it didn’t click; either the teachers didn’t push me to drawing or abstraction or perhaps, did not teach me to “see” the world through drawing. Maybe that was it and I wasn’t doing it natively/naively. I was visual, yes, but I was doing portraits in my painting class and it was quite psychological, the work. Did not send me, free me, excite, didn’t click. Now I feel differently—i.e., that painting is an enormously admirable art: physically I like the dance of it and of course the historic potential and qualities of light and color.
Instead, I seemed to gravitate to photography and film; collage seems an extension of those two fields. Collage teaches me how to structure a 2-dimensional page or paper, how to fill a shape. One of the early collages taught me about Hieronymus Bosch’s structure, a kind of all over field of related scenarios. In another, I use only triangle shapes; it becomes more about color. I am trying now to open the work up, get space and void in the picture plane. Also I am beginning to use oil sticks and drawing in them. A first! So perhaps one day I will draw more comfortably. I am drawn to the challenge, one might say.
Your earliest collages seem to be made around 1984, and then you seem to have picked up again around 2012. Did you stop working in collage for those 18 years ? And if so, what made you return in 2012? And what was different?
I began with my partner at the time, filmmaker Henry Hills, doing them in the summer when we didn’t have access to our editing machines (the truck-like Steenbecks and Moviolas). I continued into the 1990s but then was doing so much teaching and filmmaking and writing, the time for the collages wasn’t there. In the oughts I was teaching at the SMFA, School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and had access to printing and was seeing a lot of drawing and painting. The original collages were potentially fading, particularly if they had been hung in the light, so I decided to print them with archive inks and paper. I could also make these 8×10 or 14×14 inch pieces large. I began using archival paper and ink and it was wonderful. I’ve been exhibiting them since 2006 at Harvard and various galleries, especially in context of my multi-screen films. Now that I am about to retire, I am planning to have more time to continue this work.
Can you define for us montage, photomontage and collage?
Montage seems to be about film relations and for me it is about meaning and rhythm, how images can speak, can have a conversation. I can utilize Eisensteinian relations or Vertovian relations [Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein: two Russian filmmakers of the early 20th century who speak of the “language” of cinema, its “syntax”] or push pull with more contemporary oppositions and meaning making.
Collage seems to be the two-dimensional version. I use all kinds of paper, often appropriated photography from magazines, so I suppose that aspect is like photomontage, but I think that particular word is historical, referencing Hannah Hoch’s earliest work, John Heartfield, and Raoul Hausmann, most often utilizing a full figure. I know Kurt Schwitters is included in this list of antecedents, but his more abstract papers and abstract space are for me more collage.
It’s a very subtle difference perhaps. The idea of combination, of bringing differences together seems completely contemporary. I would argue collage is part of our life, part of modern life and perhaps even more part of the post-postmodern. The dimensions of our life, the experience of it is dynamic and crossed: think of the pages on your computer with Google, think of flipping through TV, or even the experience of living in a city, getting into a taxi with a moving screen, a driver from Bangladesh or Ghana who tells you something startling and then you get out and walk into a theater to see a movie shot in China! Life is a collage/montage. A set of contrasting spaces, things, visions, shapes, colors, sounds, voices. In this way, collage is completely up to the minute and seems only more and more so.
Even a forest, nature, is all about movement, light and animals, microbes under and over the ground, in the air and around us. Movement seems essential to life, and collage as emblematic of the collision of all these life forces.
In your statement, you mention the photomontage of the German Hannah Hoch. Given that the raw material of her collages came from newspapers and magazines, it’s no surprise that her work both expressed and was critical of her time (roughly between the two world wars). Can you speak to how your work relates to our time?
Many of the images, most of them actually, from my collages are from our lives, in our lives. They are appropriated from the images that surround us, from magazines and posters, from scraps of paper, tickets, etc. They represent the objects and colors and forms that surround us. Part of the delight in making collages, and in art altogether, is to make sense of this chaotic world of objects and meanings. How to live with negative capability: how to do that and not turn our backs, or back away. John Keats suggests we need to be “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” How to live without resolution.
You have a very large filmography of mostly short films. From your website, I’ve been able to see only stills. Some of these films seem to be “experimental,” in the sense of exploding images the way you do in your collage, while others seem to focus more on single shots: distorting, mirroring, manipulating. For example, the Bollywood film where you slice into an existing movie and rearrange the images and sound as to make us question our perceptions in a new film.
Are there in fact two “kinds” of film or am I being simplistic here?
No. And Yes.
I don’t believe there are two “types” of works in my filmography.
However there are short and longer works, and lately I have been exploring the latter. Since my works do not use plot, they are often held together through rhythm and other formal means: color, genre. The short films have used fiction, home movies, noir— to re-conceive and recalibrate the genre into something else. Something that both undermines genre and the given culture, and also creates its own rhythmic/sonic space.
The longer works demand a different kind of structuring. In a current experimental feature documentary, THE REVOLUTIONISTS, I utilize the life of Emma Goldman to recover the history of protest and anarchism from the early 20th century through Occupy and Black Lives Matter. Here I am building many different styles/chapters that cross and part and report. It is not a “field” construction, that is, where everything is equal across the film. Each part is very different from the other. A difficult balance indeed. But one that suits the anarchistic ideal…. or as close as I can accomplish.
I often work in series. There is the Is This What You Were Born For? series, seven short films exploring sound and image, that I conceived back in the early 80s and finished by the end of the decade. It becomes a kind of feature, though a dense one indeed. Mirror World, the Bollywood film, is part of a series called Foreign Films which explore text and image. Backing up, my first sense of text in image was with subtitles in the local European cinema house when I was in high school. I now have four of these short films and will stop at five or seven. Each of the films is a collaboration with a poet; together we pick a film and I gather text and remake the film into something new. In these collaborations, I am foregrounding text [I am a poet, as well as a filmmaker]. I would love to have all five of these movies playing simultaneously in a row down a long hall in a gallery sometime in the not so far future.
Another series THE SUBURBAN TRILOGY includes three films that make a prismatic feature: Cake and Steak, The Future Is Behind You, and Surf and Turf. Here three separate forms of experimental documentary film—post-World War II Kodachrome, black and white home movies, and contemporary l6mm and digital—approach the concept and space of American suburbia, and conflicting and shifting identities.
Some of my work examines film genres, others are encyclopedic with a multitude of images that explode or reflect the internet’s baroque overflowing surplus information. In each case I am asking to transform our looking and critique our culture. The work is not didactic however. It is humorous and I feel beautiful, extremely kinetic, exploratory: How far apart can images be and have them hold meaning? What is the edge of chaos or meaning? How can I move into meaning or back out to the edge of meaning? These questions lead to explorations and more questions, more ambivalent “answers”: everyone’s experience of chaos is different; violence isn’t sexy, expectation is; how to register a politics of poetic form; how to retain beauty inside critique?
Is all your footage shot by you in 16 mm? Is appropriating images from films the same as cutting out images from a magazine? Are we, in this age, more comfortable with appropriation?
We all love to appropriate. Why not? We all remember the oft-quoted (and usually wrongly ascribed to Picasso) that good artists imitate, great ones steal. Certainly apropos to appropriation. The work that is not appropriated is shot by me, in l6mm or HD at this point, DVCAM previously and even Video 8 in the early 90s. The changing gauges is a complete pain, a result of planned strategized corporate profiteering.
I feel the web has made appropriation more convenient, more simple and more insistent. Poets as well as artists appropriate. The sense that the world is there at your fingertips is both tantalizing and essential/defining to our 21st century. I do feel it is related to cutting images from a magazine: it is the cultural geography, the architecture of our vision and surely of our mind. We live in appropriation.
As an artist I feel editing is transformative. How one appropriates, the shape of the result, what one is trying to say–all these things are important. For me I want to transform the world, though the world on its own is already a piece of amazement. Whether it be political realities, wars across the globe, fish dying on our coasts, the reality of the globe is up in our face and that is what needs to be seen, not avoided. That is the positive of appropriation. And very similar to the ideals by which art has always defined for itself: to raise consciousness from inattention to reflection, from just walking by, into a shape and space of focus.
To appropriate and claim it as art (as per Duchamp) is to draw attention to that which is otherwise not seen.
From what I can tell, the manipulations in your film “A Shape of Error” aren’t so much in the images, but in the concept. For example, while the film is described as imaginary, it also follows the diaries of Shelly and his second wife, Mary, which are supposedly truthful records of their inner lives and times. Also, you’re “bringing cinematic possibilities in these lives, before cinema was invented.” How is this different from any other biographic documentary of historical figures who existed before cinema, that fictionalizes the “facts”? Is this your idea of a home movie?
I don’t believe you’ve seen UNBOUND, which manipulates the images directly, makes a palimpsest of the piece. Perhaps you have only seen the trailer?
The film is constructed as an imaginary “home movie” with multiple fields/screens inside it. It is not at all like any normal biopic. It is on the edge of technology, unwinding the story through recollections, hacking the editing software to create sci-fi colors and blockages, working through absence and ambiguity, interruption, and of course facts drawn from Mary’s diaries and Percy’s poems.
The context of your films seems as elaborate as your collages, as deconstructed, reimagined, and energized. I’m picking up women, sex, gender, history, romance, media, Bollywood, pop-culture, more sex, architecture, transportation…what have I left out? I especially love how you use the word “jolly.” Could you give us a paragraph of your “themes” and what mischief you intend to wreck on them? Are you exploring similar notions in all your work?
I think you have summarized the context well: women, sex, gender, history, romance, media, Bollywood, pop-culture, more sex, architecture, transportation.
I do think humor is a way to reach audiences and also negotiate the deep injustice and darknesses in our world. So that’s my “jolly.” I think music and rhythm help as well.
As a woman, I feel strongly that our issues have been largely ignored throughout the previous centuries of art history and I want to address this. I experientially feel “framed” in my gender, my sex and cultural expectations. My job as artist includes breaking that frame.
In relation to that “theme,” I could enlarge it by saying I am interested in the margins, interested in where we have not, as a nation or people, looked. In the margin is freedom as well as anonymity as well as the ignored, the refuse. It’s an open field for exploration, for play, for performing outside the norm, and it is a field that insists/resists us. All of that is appealing.
Just think how free and large the music scene is—the multitude of differences and styles and genres and locations for listening. It would be great to get that multiplicity for film or art even. Though the multiplicity exists, the internet is a diffident carrier. Image on the internet can be a bit like a postcard in relation to a painting. You are not getting the full experience, full sensuousness, and with that narrowing, there is the increased relevance of story, fact, normative perspective and perhaps, normative outlook. I do appreciate the wideness of the internet’s span/scope certainly. You can’t find everything, but you can find any thing.
Of course there is also the response that the net screens your likes, follows your “clicks,” gives you back what it thinks you want. The whole issue of surveillance and data mining that make what appears endless, to be in fact quite narrow, even censorial.
I’m fascinated how “cohesive” the films, collages, and books are in the wake of your explosive methodology. Are you ever satisfied? Made comfortable by what you do?
The cohesion in the films is due to Rhythm I think and my strong sense of spatial structure. Time here is converted into space in my perceptive and proprioceptive perspective. With the collages, the relation to the frame, to the edge is essential. I am interested in the push-pull of the image. This is not learned but a reflection of my body, my own inner rhythms I would guess. When I am working I am not analyzing the process, though afterwards I will and make the slight or large changes that might be necessary. Structure remains important to me: poetic form, how we see. For an artist, how is often more important than why.
In the excerpt from your 1989 book Motive for Mayhem, you write “I had long conceived of a film composed only of reaction shots in which all causality was erased.” What would that look like? Or, have you done this, for example, in the Bollywood film?
PERILS (1984) is a response to that idea and yes the Bollywood film has many similar instances: to pull away from normative causality and find the emotional basis for the work. With Mirror World, I first removed (almost) all the men from the piece, and yes you are right, began to look at the reaction shots. I think part of my fascination is the human face and particularly the human face thinking. Barthes article on Garbo discusses this lovingly.
There is nothing more interesting —at least to humans. As species we are always searching for meaning and the face carries that more than anywhere else on the body.
You write in your statement here that “The goal for the (near) future: to make a cinema-in-the-round where images surround us— fragmented, prismatic, fleeting—impossible to unify, potent, beautiful.” How’s it going?
MirrorWorlds, the three screen version combining Mirror World, DARK DARK, and TO AND NO FRO began this investigation. My next installation Hacking Empire involved four screens running down a 100-foot hallway in Rome. Unfortunately the technology is still not there, so that I am practicing making these multi-screen prismatic creations. I am hoping to install multiple screens from UNBOUND in a house in New York in the upcoming spring which would continue and extend this aspiration. It remains a work in progress, which is exciting since it has all that potential ahead.